Kids who slip through the cracks: How did our adoption system break down?

There are 15,000 kids in long-term out-of-home care – how can we fix it?

Across Australia almost 50,000 children are living in out-of-home care – in foster care, or with relatives – and 15,000 of those children have been away from their birth families for more than two years.

They are unlikely to return home, and yet adoption rates are shockingly low.

Advocates say Australia’s adoption system needs fixing.

“For those children in out of home care for long periods are spending time in six or more places – there’s a real lack of stability that has a big effect on a child. Where it is appropriate, there has to be a way for adoption to be considered for them,” Jane Hunt, head of Adopt Change says.

Chief Executive of Adopt Change, Jane Hunt

“What we want is a system that responds to the children’s needs – there are currently 15,000 children in care for over two years, if you contrast that with domestic adoptions last year, there were just 203. So clearly that path is blocked.”

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The tragic case this week of 12-year-old foster child Tiahleigh Palmer, found dead after going missing on her way to school, has highlighted the lengths of time children can spend in foster care.

“Reunification or restoration with birth families is really important but you need, there needs to be, a time where you stop that because the children are being harmed by being in temporary care,” Ms Hunt said.

“Of course, each child in each family is different and you need a system that is responsive to those differences.”

Research conducted for Adopt Change found that among Australians who had considered adoption, the length of time the process took and the complexity of the system were significant barriers.

While 17 per cent of people surveyed said they had considered adoption, 87 per cent of those people had abandoned the process.

One respondent described it as a catch-22:

“If you’re a couple and maybe decide at 33 you’re going to start trying to have kids, you try for a couple of years, then maybe IVF; by that time you’re 36/37. Then [you] say ‘we’d really still like to have kids, we’ve tried a lot of avenues now let’s try adoption’.

“If you get stuck in the bureaucracy for five years, then you’re out of the loop and now too old to be a parent because you’re viewed as an inappropriate candidate.”

Kelly Gray, 35, and her husband Tim, 39, began the adoption process three years before a six-month-old girl who had been in foster care since birth was placed with them. A year later they finalised the adoption.

“My husband and I decided that we wanted to look into local adoption as a means to have a family.  We have undiagnosed infertility – no one knows whats wrong.

“We had gone down the IVF route and decided it wasn’t for us and we wanted to move into adoption.”

It took four years for Kelly Gray, 35, and her husband Tim to get through the adoption process.

Just getting into the adoption pool took 18 months – with background checks and counselling an essential part of the process.

“We know some people, and it took them nine months, others it took two years,” Ms Gray, who is also the president of the Adoption and Permanent Care Parents Association of NSW, said.

Once in the pool, the Grays had to wait for a suitable match with a child. That took 18 months as well – but again, Ms Gray said she knows couples who have been in the pool for up to four years – after that you are taken out of the pool and have to start the process again.

Ms Gray thinks the way the Australian system is moving – toward open adoptions where children have access to and knowledge of their birth parents – will enable more adoptions in the future.

“I think it’s really hard in a culture that’s been quite scarred by adoption in the past. One of the nice things about open adoption now is that there is flexibility,” she said.

“For our daughter we have a life book and we have photos of her mum and her dad and we have some photos of siblings and we talk about them as well… There’s a real sense of togetherness and something we all wanted for her.”

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Video via The Project TV

It’s National Adoption Awareness Week and speaking from Canberra where she is lobbying for change, Ms Hunt said there was broad parliamentary support for reform to a system that currently sees children and potential parents waiting too long for certainty.

“What we’re calling for this week is a change for Australia so that it has a unified system. We want one system across Australia and we want to reduce the waiting time for children in out-of-home care, four years is a very long time to wait for a resolution.”

A recent parliamentary inquiry into the out-of-home care system found that in the past 15 years the number of children in the system has more than doubled.

The report, published in August, made a series of recommendations for the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) to consider as it works towards a national framework for out-of-home care and adoption.

Jane Hunt says a national framework would make all the difference, but what really matters most is making adoption a viable option from the beginning.

“The adoption conversation needs to start at the very beginning of the process. This is ultimately about the rights of the child and the responsibility of the parents. And children need to have stability,” she said.

“At the end of the day you have to remember that this isn’t a case number or a file number – it’s a child, and it’s a child that deserves love and support and a family.”

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